As the title suggests, The Outsiders is a theme in itself. Looking at life as an outsider and feeling as though one is being treated as an outsider is a matter of perspective or point of view. Someone who always feels like an outsider may conclude that life is unfair.
Adolescence is a time when teenagers may consider themselves to be adults, but in reality teens are still under the control of others. Parents, teachers, and other authority figures are always telling them how to live their lives. This loss of control inevitably leads to the feeling that life isn't fair. For example, Ponyboy knows that he is not safe walking the streets in his own neighborhood. He could be attacked solely because of the way he is dressed; he feels like an outsider in his own town. His feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability lead him to conclude that life is not fair.
Ponyboy sees injustice on a daily basis. His parents are dead, Darry is forced to work two jobs to support the brothers, Soda has dropped out of school, and the greasers are looked upon as "white trash." He explains that the gang warfare is actually warfare between the economic classes. Because he is from the poor, East Side of town, his place in life is unfairly predetermined.
The evolution of the family relationships is a recurrent theme in the novel. Family relationships are strained during the teen years, but in the Curtis family, the right to stay together as a family is a constant struggle. Since the death of their parents, Darry has assumed the responsibility of guardianship for Pony and Soda, and under that pressure he has aged beyond his years. He no longer views the two boys as siblings, but rather as a responsibility. Darry recognizes Ponyboy's potential and has high expectations for him. Ponyboy complains that Darry is a stricter disciplinarian than his father, but by the end of the book he understands Darry's role: "Darry is a good guardian; he makes me study and knows where I am and who I'm with all the time. . . . My father didn't yell at me as much as he does."
Pony struggles with his expectations for Soda. He is self-conscious about the fact that Soda has dropped out of school, and he wants him to finish his education. Soda did not do well in school, did not like school, and is perfectly content to work in a gas station — a job he loves. Soda also believes that he is doing the right thing by helping to support his family. Pony doesn't care about any of those facts; he just wants Soda to go back to school. Gang relationships are included in the theme of family love. Ponyboy's gang members need the support and security that they find in the gang. The home life situations that these boys find themselves in are often abusive. They have turned to the gang for the love and support that should have come from parents.
Johnny is painfully aware of the difference between the gang and a family and through him Pony begins to understand how lucky he is to have caring family members: "I don't know what it was about Johnny — maybe that lost-puppy look and those big scared eyes were what made everyone his big brother. . . . I thought about it for a minute — Darry and Sodapop were my brothers and I loved both of them . . . they were my real brothers, not just sort of adopted ones." Pony's eventual ability to appreciate his family shows his growth.
The third major theme that runs through The Outsiders is the use of colors in a black and white world. Adolescents have a tendency to embrace people and events as absolutes. For example, someone or something is either right or wrong; there can be no middle ground. The characters in The Outsiders are either Socs or greasers. People are either rich or poor, good or bad. Hinton descriptively uses color throughout the book to define and add depth to the characters in their environments.
Early in the book, she associates warm colors with the Socs and cool colors with the greasers. Warmth usually is equated with inside and cool is associated with outside, and the colors reflect the characters' positions in society: The greasers view the Socs as insiders and themselves as outsiders.
Using many descriptive colors, Hinton paints the greasers as outsiders. In her original descriptions of Ponyboy's gang, she uses cool colors: Ponyboy's eyes are greenish-gray, Darry's eyes "are like two pieces of pale blue-green ice," Dally's eyes are "blue, blazing ice, cold with a hatred," and Two-Bit Mathews has gray eyes.
Dally is the exception to the rule, "His hair was almost white it was so blond." White contains all of the visible rays of the color spectrum. It is a crossover color that cannot be affiliated with anyone or anything, so it is interesting that Dally, who was "tougher than the rest of us — tougher, colder, meaner," was the one with white/blond hair.
White is also used many times throughout the novel to describe fright, "white as a ghost." The color white symbolizes the internalization that there are no absolutes in the world. To realize that people and events may not be purely right or wrong, good or bad, can be frightening. Dally's white hair exemplifies this concept. Dally appears to be the stereotypical hood: cold, hard, and mean. But he is not that extreme persona. Just like the color white contains all the colors of the spectrum, Dally's character covers a broad spectrum. In addition to his cold, mean image, he is Johnny's hero, he is the one who literally gave Pony the coat off his back, he helped to save the children from the fire, and he was a scared boy who reached out to the Curtis brothers when he most needed help at the end of his life.
Throughout the book, Pony matures and grows in his ability to see the full spectrum, to stop dividing the world into black and white, good and bad, insiders and outsiders, greasers and Socs. Pony's fascination with sunsets at the beginning of the book and, later, his appreciation of the countryside around the church hideout ("I loved to look at the colors of the fields and the soft shadings of the horizon") symbolize this development of his character. A sub-theme within this story is the power of three. Three is a cardinal number that is common in American literature and folklore, and to find it as a pivotal theme in this story is not surprising. Americans have grown up with stories such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs. The Holy Trinity is a major doctrine of the Christian faith.
The three Curtis brothers working together have the power to save their family. Three greasers working together save the lives of children trapped by fire. And the three rings on the fist of a Soc change Johnny's life forever, and ultimately lead to three deaths: Bob's, Johnny's, and Dally's.